Reporters Without Borders continues its weekly look at the state of free expression and self-censorship in Denmark by publishing an interview with a leading figure from the world of the Danish media and arts.
This week’s interview is with Carsten Jensen, a writer and journalist who is very critical of the liberal-conservative coalition government. He has just been awarded the Olof Palme Prize for his “courageous, committed and determined” defence of human rights.
Is freedom of expression in danger in Denmark?
No. Obviously there is the Kurt Westergaard case. When someone breaks into your house and tries to kill you, that is undeniably a threat. But the question is knowing whether or not this is just a symbol, and therefore an exception. Or if everyone who did what he did would risk the same fate. Personally I think it is an isolated case.
So why is this question constantly being discussed in Denmark?
It is hard to understand. Perhaps our freedom of expression is well protected but we have lost the habit of using it, except for telling Muslims how bad they are. Honestly, I would be surprised to learn that there are artists or writers who want to criticise Islam in their art or their work but hold back for fear of reprisals.
Have you personally never been the target of threats?
No. And in my view, anyone saying the contrary is just trying to draw attention to themselves. I do not think that artists and writers who want to draw cartoons of the Prophet or put on a play that is extremely critical of Muslims refrain from doing so. Mistreating Muslims has become a national sport in Denmark. Look at what the politicians say. No one is threatening them. They do not have bodyguards. They do not censor themselves when they talk about Muslims. On the contrary, if they want to attract voters, they have to say the worst things possible. Things that are absolutely unthinkable outside Denmark.
Why is the issue of free expression constantly linked to that of Islam in Denmark?
It is a consequence of the political context. It is also a consequence of the situation of the Muslim minority, which is bigger than other religious minorities and often comes from pre-modern societies, resulting in a clash of cultures with problems of adaptation, unemployment ... This makes Muslims an easy target of public anxiety and anger. Also, there is no denying that Islamist terror poses a global threat, which adds to the fear.
But doesn’t this result in self-censorship on the part of artists and writers?
When Jyllands Posten published the cartoons of the Prophet in 2005, the newspapers were never able to find cartoonists ready to say they restricted themselves in their work for fear of reprisals. So why does this debate go on? It is obviously very important to take a clear position on free expression, whether or not one approves of the constant criticism being made of a religion. But the debate continues in part because it is manipulated by the (far-right) Danish People’s Party, whose only platform is hatred of Muslims. It is not a party that is going up in the polls. It has around 12-13 percent. But it has an enormous influence on the political scene because the liberal-conservative government cannot rule without its support. And to protect its power it has to protect its raison d’être. Because it will cease to exist if people see that immigrants are integrating, which is the case. So it is in a desperate struggle for survival. It has to keep the debate alive. And that is what it does. It is like a monologue that no one dares to interrupt. Neither the government, for fear of losing power, nor the opposition, which hopes to attain power by imitating the People’s Party’s rhetoric.
Elected representatives of this party recently made some very aggressive comments about Muslims. Was that an abuse of free expression that should be the subject of legislation?
No, definitely not. Restricting free expression is not the solution. Silencing the opposition is never a solution in a democracy. You would just risk creating martyrs. No, the only solution is for the silent majority to stand up and react.
(Photo : Isak Hoffmeyer)